Thoughts on an Active Community of Practice Engine

In my last post on how organizations should look at employee knowledge, I suggested that we need new kinds of tools — other than word processors — for helping people contribute to the organizational knowledge base. I didn’t say how I thought such tools could work, so in this post, I’m making some suggestions. The lens through which I look at the corporate knowledge base is that of a community of practice. To me, the knowledge base isn’t the goal; it’s a side effect of helping would-be collaborators find each other and interact. Let people query each other, help each other, teach each other, lecture each other, cite each other, rewrite each other — collaborations take many forms — and give them an online home in which to do it, and you’ll have laid the foundation for the organization’s knowledge repository.

When I say “community of practice,” I’m thinking of any set of people who wish to collaborate, seek advice, “compare notes,” and stay abreast of relevant events or knowledge in their field because they do the same job or have the same expertise. Members of a community of practice (COP):

  • May be colleagues, but are not necessarily
  • May be geographically close, but need not be
  • May know most other members, but often don’t
  • May know others who should be members, but often haven’t discovered those people yet
  • Want to interact and collaborate, but don’t necessarily know how best to do this
  • May have an online “home” in which to operate, but often don’t

I take it as a given that organizations benefit by allowing COPs to form, operate, record their knowledge, and thrive. Without meaning to make any political commentary, I can certainly imagine organizational structures and philosophies that would find all this fraternization dangerous. I probably can’t convince those folks of my point of view. My target is people who see that communities of practice develop new knowledge and facilitate knowledge transfer within the organization; that COP knowledge can foster innovation and can identify specialties the organization didn’t know it had; and that COP members derive a sense of belonging to the smaller group which transfers to a sense of loyalty to the larger organization.

So why am I convinced we need new tools for COP practitioners? It’s because the usual suspects let us down. We give people a mailing list, a shared drive for posting files, and maybe a way to conduct online discussions, and then we wait for the magic to happen. >>Crickets chirping….<< Well, why doesn’t the magic happen? Why don’t online communities just “work?” At first, sometimes they do work if a few motivated and communicative members keep the community alive with questions and content. But the mavens don’t necessarily know valuable ways to encourage participation and attract new blood. Tired of the lukewarm community response to their efforts, the mavens move on or fade into a passive role.

Online communities are still new to us. At least we act as if they are. We don’t inherently know how to operate them. Lacking a model for success, online COPs usually fizzle. Technology can help solve this problem, but not the static kind of technology that just sits there and waits for people to use it. What we need is an active engine that drives and guides participation.

What if a community of practice operated on a software platform that “knew” what to do? What if the platform:

  • Coached members on how to play the necessary roles to keep the COP vibrant?
  • Solicited participation from members?
  • Suggested actions for keeping the community going and the content fresh?
  • Provided tools and instructions for carrying out its suggestions?

To make this just a little less abstract, here are some things I think an active COP engine could do:

  • Maintain a list of key activities that someone in the community should perform, e.g.:
    • Ask a question
    • Contribute a document or a link to content
    • Run a survey
    • Organize an event
    • Launch a discussion topic
    • Run a conference call or meeting
    • Comment on existing content
    • Propose a new content area
  • Remind practitioners periodically to perform a key activity that has not been done in a while
  • Seek participation from members, e.g., postings to discussions, answers to questions, comments on content, etc.
  • Seek missing metadata, e.g., questions need answers, meetings need agendas and minutes, discussion topics need resolutions, etc.
  • Seek fresh content in weak or stale areas

The active COP engine itself would probably be executable code running on the same server as whatever collaboration platform was in use. There’s no reason to write a new collaboration platform; many exist that provide decent functions and can be extended. The COP engine could use the same underlying database as the collaboration platform for its metadata and any other data it needed to store. It could also use the local messaging capability, e.g., email server, for communicating its guidance and reminders out to the user community. The following figure, in addition to illustrating why I got poor grades in art class, also diagrams a (very) high level hypothetical architecture.

Ideally, the engine’s behavior would be largely data-driven, or said less geekily, a configuration file would tell the engine what to do. For example, you could configure the engine to know that a given activity (“Run a survey”) should be carried out by a particular role (perhaps any user could run one, or maybe you’d decide that only administrators should be able to run surveys) with a given frequency (monthly). You could also specify a set of tools to give the user as aids in carrying out the activity; the tools could be native platform capabilities (e.g., many collaboration platforms have a native capability to launch a discussion) or specially written wizards to supply capabilities and guidance that the platform lacks.

I admit I leave a lot to the imagination, but this is a blog post, not a functional spec or technical design. I’m not proposing anything technically difficult or groundbreaking here — agents that “do stuff” are not even close to a new idea. And of course you’d have to devise ways to keep the engine from being an obtrusive pain in the neck or a disrespected amusement (remember the smiling paper clip in Word?) The potential flies in the ointment are addressable without needing any breakthroughs in the field of computer science, though. Worth some consideration, IMHO, are three ideas. First, the idea that communities of practice need guidance and an operating model in order to succeed. Second, the idea that software agents can supply this guidance as an overlay to an existing collaboration platform. And third, the idea that you needn’t work so hard at building the corporate knowledge base; thriving communities of practice will leave one behind as an artifact of their activities.

I’m champing at the bit to build this. Anyone have funding?

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Posted in knowledge management

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